Art, poetry help Kimball teen cope with leukemia

Coping with Cancer
In this Sept. 17, 2010 photo, Kimball, Minn., resident and St. Cloud Tech sophomore Kate Stewart talks about one of the paintings she created through art therapy during her hospital stay with leukemia at the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital in Minneapolis.
AP Photo/The St. Cloud Times, Kimm Anderson

By AMY BOWEN, St. Cloud Times

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) - Kate Stewart ran when she learned her leukemia returned last April.

She was finishing her ninth-grade year at Technical High School, and already had beaten back the disease once. Now she had to do it again.

"I cried and ran all the way to my friend's house," Kate said recently while she sat in the teen room at the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital in Minneapolis.

She had just been released after living at the hospital almost nonstop since spring while doctors pounded the cancer into remission with toxic chemotherapy in preparation for a bone-marrow transplant.

She was allowed a short respite at Ronald McDonald House in September before being readmitted for what is expected to be months of isolation and hospitalization while doctors manage the life-saving transplant.

Anger, sickness, stress, loneliness and sadness have dominated her emotions.

At times, they cascade together on the Kimball teen.

Kate, a self-described sports nut, turned to art and poetry therapies to help her cope. It is an unexpected outlet for her emotions as she navigates cancer and the teenage world of friends and boys and dreams of a future.

"I always hated art," Kate said, surrounded by drawings and murals she created. "I wasn't good at it. I sucked. Then you're stuck in your room, and you think of a lot of things."

Art therapies help children cope with the stress of fighting a disease and staying in the hospital, said Melissa Turgeon, a child-family life specialist and art therapist at the hospital. Such therapies give patients ownership of their illnesses and treatments, she said.

Kate first battled the disease in sixth grade. She thought she beat it once, and then she was thrust into a fight once again.

The emotional frustration was compounded by serious side effects from the aggressive medical treatments.

"Kate has had some drama," her mother, Candy Stewart-James, said. "August was a busy month."

Chemotherapy caused congestive heart failure, anxiety, lung problems, an infection in her lymph nodes that forced two surgeries and strokelike symptoms resulting from the toxins traveling to her brain.

All the setbacks worried Kate's medical team. That's when Melissa Turgeon, an art therapist and child-family specialist at the hospital, started working with the Kate.

"Kate was really angry and didn't want to go forward," Turgeon said. "Kate won't let you in unless she trusts you."

Art therapy gave Kate an outlet.

Turgeon gave her simple projects at first. She filled a journal with visual feelings within a night. They quickly started to explore drawing and painting using a variety of techniques.

Soon, Kate's drawings wallpapered her hospital room alongside wishes for wellness from family and friends.

Whatever Turgeon gave her to try, Kate adopted.

"That sparkle she had and the pride. She was like, 'This is me,"' Turgeon said. "She's allowing herself to be heard. Kate found a vehicle to express herself."

Art distracted Kate. It allowed her to escape. She'd crank up hip-hop music on her iPod as she worked and let herself go.

Kate says she's not the type to talk to someone about her feelings. But art let her share them if she needed.

"Some she would share with me," Candy said. "Some she didn't share with me. It was none of my business."

Art therapy also led Kate to dabble in poetry therapy. Diane Hovey, a poetry therapist at the hospital, helped Kate find her written voice.

"Our main goal is to help give expression to the challenge the person has," Hovey said. "In Kate's situation, it was living with cancer. It gives validity to her experience. By writing something out, it gives them a window into their experience."

Children who are hospitalized have great wisdom, she said. Poetry therapy helps them share their stories with others, she said.

Both therapies are welcomed by Candy. They have allowed her daughter to learn new coping skills.

"She was always in sports," Candy said. "A lot of her feelings came out in sports."

Cancer and being a teenager are difficult issues on their own, but together, it would have been too much without Kate's art.

Since April, she and her mother have lived in the Twin Cities for treatment. Kate misses her friends; her dad, Roger Stewart; and her calico cat, Frisky.

While most 16-year-olds celebrate birthdays with friends, Kate celebrated hers last month at Ronald McDonald House.

Her wish list included "to get better and a car." She's working on both.

Life goes on at home without her. Her dad works and has to remodel their home for Kate's eventual arrival. Her friends are busy with school and other activities back in St. Cloud.

That leaves mom most days.

"It's every 15-year-old's dream - to spend 24 hours a day with your mother," Candy said, with a chuckle.

There's hope that Kate's bone marrow transplant will beat her cancer. But getting it means she will be confined to her hospital room from the time of the transfusion until early next year.

In the meantime, she'll draw and write about living as a teenager with cancer. Her room will once again be filled with her work.

Her writing and artwork document will one day serve as a reminder of the battle she fought and hopefully will have won, she said.

She's finished running away.

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Information from: St. Cloud Times

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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